Not hard to get the bard

Not hard to get the bard

Understanding Shakespeare is easier if you go to see his plays

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Kate Lamb (left) plays Katherina the "shrew" in the title of the play
Kate Lamb (left) plays Katherina the "shrew" in the title of the play
William Shakespeare has inspired thousands of literature lovers over the decades - yet many of his masterpieces have puzzled as many minds as they've pleased.

For most young readers, Shakespeare's metaphors and similes are difficult to decipher. (It was the 16th century, after all.) Because they're wrapped in stylish - some would say sophisticated - language, understanding and appreciating them becomes an even more painstaking mission.

So, how does someone fall in love with these works?

"I would say that Shakespeare's works were written to be performed, and to be heard, rather than to be read," says Kate Lamb, of Shakespeare's Globe, who will play Katherina Minola in The Taming of the Shrew in five shows at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts from September 25-29.

The main plot is actually a play-within-a-play about the odd relationship between Katherina, the "shrew" - an old word for an unpleasant woman - and Petruchio, a newcomer to town, who doesn't care who he marries, as long as she's rich.

His friend, Lucentio, has his own agenda: he wants to marry Katherina's nicer younger sister, Bianca. But there are two obstacles: two other guys want Bianca also, and the father says Katherina must get married first. Bianca's suitors are frustrated, saying no one will marry Katherina because she's a total witch. Lucentio sets up a deal with the father in which Petruchio will marry Katherina.

So, the main focus is on Petruchio and Katherina and his funny, yet woman-hating, tactics - including reverse psychology - to tame this loud shrew into a loving woman before the wedding.

The English word for woman-hater is misogynist, from the Greek words for "hate" and "woman". It's the source of a lot of the comedy in The Taming of the Shrew, and it's even funnier in modern developed countries, where society tends to treat men and women as equals. What makes this production even funnier is its all-female cast - yes, even the misogynistic Petruchio.

"My character, Petruchio, is one of literature's most famous misogynists," says Leah Whitaker. "It is a brilliant opportunity for us to reclaim the story and retell it."

To do that, and to help younger people understand Shakespeare's works, Lamb says she reads the script out loud to prepare for auditions, just to listen to how the words sound. "I will almost always read it out loud, even to myself, and I sound crazy," she says. "But it's the only way to really understand."

Shakespeare beginners and young readers, she says, can do the same thing. Lamb encourages young people to explore the master's works by seeing performances.

"I think people who struggle with the reading part shouldn't be afraid that they won't understand what they are seeing," says Lamb, as the script is 10 times clearer when it's acted out.

Whitaker says it will help if young people think of the language being spoken not so much as English, but rather as the language of men and women. "That's universal," she says.

Even so, the show will stay true to the original script. "Petruchio's behaviour is questionable in the story, but it is there," Lamb says. "We want to honour that, but we don't want to advocate any of his methods. We'd like you to make your own decision about that."

Whitaker says that although the play was written as a comedy, the audience will see that "the tragedy is born from the misogyny".

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